How can nuclear war be thinkable? Everybody knows these weapons are unusable. Their only purpose is to deter other countries from nuking us. Trying to stop other countries from getting the technology has been a top global priority for decades, as we have discussed recently. But other than that isn’t “nuclear strategy” an oxymoron?
Not really. The absence of nuclear wars may have been an intrinsic feature of mutually assured destruction (the infamous MAD). but, we have always had a formal deterrence strategy. The Trump Administration has updated it. Our nuclear posture has many moving parts and the basic concepts underlying deterrence are a bit complicated.
In short, U.S. nuclear weapons strategy involves:
- Maintaining the stockpile: Keeping our nuclear arsenal in working order and able to survive a first strike, so as to keep a credible deterrent.
- Managing crises: Minimizing the risk that nuclear war could break out in a crisis or by accident, and maximizing our ability to stop one once it starts.
- Stopping proliferation: Preventing other countries from developing nuclear weapons programs and stopping those that have them (like North Korea and Pakistan) from helping other countries or terrorists to get them.
- Managing deterrence: Keeping the threshold for using nukes very, very high and NOT doing anything stupid that would lower that threshold, like flirting with the idea of using them ourselves in a preemptive strike or in a conventional war, or weakening the global commitment to non-proliferation.
On that last one, funny story. President Trump has taken steps to do all the dumb things. There is also (1) his high-wire brinksmanship with North Korea and Iran and the increased risk of regional nuclear arms races if his gambles fail; and (2) serious concerns over this president’s mental health, impulsiveness, and the quality of the advice he is getting. Worse, as a key article below explains the march of technology is edging closer to having an impact on nuclear strategy – notably in missile defense and cyberwar – and no one is really sure how.
To be sure, the danger of nuclear war is small and likely will remain small. After all, despite some close calls deterrence has worked for 70 years. One might even argue that Trump’s foreign policy could end up lowering the risk of a nuclear war, at least one involving the United States. (I wouldn’t.) Still we’re talking about nuclear war here. So, even though nuclear deterrence is a surprisingly complicated topic it a timely and appropriate one for our Memorial Day.
Plus, there’s coffee.
I am supposed to know a fair amount about this topic. So I will open with a short explanation of how deterrence functions and some of its weirder and paradoxical qualities. Then I will summarize recent developments in this area with a focus on the steps the Trump Administration is taking/not taking. I will leave the astonishing Trumpian moves towards North Korea and Iran for our discussion.
Here are the usual optional background readings. Some are a little technical, so skim for key ideas or just stick to the recommended ones.
SUGGESTED BACKGROUND READING –
- FYI: Which countries possess how many nuclear weapons? Did you know this?
- Has nuclear deterrence worked?
- How Russia and Putin think about nuclear weapons and how it complicates our choices.
- Trump’s rhetoric on nukes has swerved from reasonable to naïve to disturbing.
- Our new strategy:
- “The World Doesn’t Need Any More Nuclear Strategies.” Recommended.
NEXT WEEK: Pros and cons of a Universal Basic Income (UBI).